LeBron James made his Staples Center debut on Tuesday night, and while the Los Angeles Lakers ultimately lost their second game in a row to the Denver Nuggets, he gave the hometown crowd something to cheer for.
James was still in coast mode, drifting through the game and looking to get teammates going (overpassing was a team-wide problem), but even giving less than maximum effort, he managed to put up 13 points in just 15 minutes while delivering one of his trademark thunderous slam dunks to rock the crowd.
James has now taken the throne (and locker, apparently) that was vacated by Kobe Bryant and previously occupied by Brandon Ingram; now he just needs to find a way to make the city his own.
That won’t happen in preseason, but his arrival has certainly created a buzz in the air once again. That said, the Lakers’ second preseason game provided even more clues as to what the future of the team holds. Let’s dive into three things that we learned after Tuesday’s game:
Time To Worry About The Center Spot?: The Lakers have caught plenty of heat for embarking upon the season with only JaVale McGee, Ivica Zubac and rookie Moritz Wagner as true centers. After all, James’ career is finite and the Lakers can’t afford to venture into the untamed Western Conference with such a glaring weakness.
Of course, McGee hasn’t been the problem. In fact, he has been a dynamo. The Lakers are simply better when he is on the floor and his 15 points, 8 rebounds, and 5 blocks eclipsed anything even the most zealous of fans could have expected. He runs the floor hard, jumps like a pogo stick, and dunks everything in sight.
There’s no telling how many minutes he can handle, but it appears that the Lakers are going to have to ask a lot of him. So far, he has been the unquestioned best player of the ‘M.U.D.’ squad and it’s not particularly close. McGee has fly swatted away any doubt that existed about who the team’s starting center is.
Behind him, however, is an abyss of uncertainty. Wagner is out for the preseason, and Zubac, who played better on Tuesday night, still has his flaws.
He was actually effective on the offensive end, scoring 9 points in 11 minutes and making decisive moves in the paint. Defensively, however, Zubac got lit up by Mason Plumlee, losing track of him time and again when Plumlee would creep along the baseline. Zubac, playing in no man’s land in order to cut off drives into the paint, couldn’t figure out the correct angle to deny the pass to the shifting Plumlee, who then gorged himself on uncontested dunks.
The experiment with Kyle Kuzma at center went a little better than his debut (aside from a leg cramp), and to be fair, Denver is a difficult team to go small against with a tandem of Nikola Jokic and Plumlee both creating mismatch problems.
Long-term, the Lakers probably need a dependable true backup five, especially in case of an injury. If the team determines that’s not Zubac, they do have an open roster spot and a few options on the free agent market still, plus roster cuts coming could add a few more names to the pool.
It’s way too early to declare the small ball lineups a bust, but it hasn’t been the best start, either.
Defense Steps Up: Make no mistake, the Lakers didn’t play good defense against the Nuggets on Tuesday night. Denver was missing their starting backcourt of Jamal Murray and Gary Harris but Los Angeles still struggled to contest shots, giving up a scary amount of wide-open threes.
That said, it was better than what we saw in their debut on Sunday. The Lakers started the game looking somewhat like themselves from last season, flying around the court and contesting everything. About halfway through the first quarter that broke down and the cracks began to appear, but this is a team filled with players who are trying to learn how to work together. It’s not supposed to look flawless right now.
The flashes are there, it’s just going to take time for Luke Walton’s vision of a super-switchy, versatile defense to get on the same page.
The defensive glass was again a problem as the Lakers gave up 12 offensive rebounds to the Nuggets. The hope was that their guards, who all rebound well for their position, would make up for the lack of true bruisers on the boards, as they did last season.
However, that team also had Brook Lopez boxing out the other team’s biggest threat on the boards and Julius Randle as a constant threat to clean the glass, providing opportunities for Josh Hart, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Lonzo Ball to fly in.
This year’s roster doesn’t have that same bulk in the paint, which means the boards could be a challenge this season.
What’s particularly problematic about this is that, like last season’s Lakers, this year’s group will attempt to make up for an inefficient half-court offense by getting out in transition as much as possible. McGee, James, Brandon Ingram, Rajon Rondo and Ball can all be brilliant in the open floor but they won’t get those opportunities without forcing missed shots and then securing the rebound.
Ball’s looming return should help in both areas and the team should improve as they get more familiar with each other, which is what we saw glimpses of on Tuesday night. There’s a lot of work to do before the games count, but the progress was evident.
Josh Hart Goes For The Kill: Heading into training camp it appeared that one of the most intriguing storylines would be the fight one between Caldwell-Pope and Hart for the starting shooting guard spot. While it’s way too early to declare a winner, so far Hart has made it look as one-sided as Thanos vs. the Hulk.
After an invisible performance from Caldwell-Pope with the starting unit on Sunday night, Walton decided to put Hart into the starting five, and he certainly didn’t squander the opportunity. It wasn’t a perfect performance by any means, but Hart’s 14 points, 3 rebounds, and 4 assists looked especially impressive compared to Caldwell-Pope’s second forgettable night.
Don’t write off Caldwell-Pope completely, as he’s certainly better than what he has shown so far. He finished last season on a tear and it’s only a matter of time before he gets his legs under him again, but by then, Hart may have locked up the starting job.
He showed the full repertoire on Tuesday, contorting to finish through contact at the rim, hitting threes, and getting into the paint while playing pesky defense. He brings the toughness that Walton loves and he has the poise to handle big moments thanks to his college days at Villanova.
After winning the MVP Award at the Las Vegas Summer League, Hart appears to have a commanding lead on a starting role. Not bad for a guy picked 30th in the draft just over a year ago.